Toxic Torts

Welding Rod Wars

Welding rod lawsuits have been on the rise in recent years. Welding plays a big role in constructing many useful items, from planes to homes. Many worry though that welding is dangerous, and thousands of lawsuits have been filed against welding companies alleging the manganese fumes released in welding cause neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's disease.

Companies making welding rods say it's safe and the lawsuits are unfounded. But, as the case with most toxic torts and mass hazardous material lawsuits, it's difficult to prove how harm is caused. Blame for harm isn't always easy to assign. Nonetheless, several welding rod cases made the news recently.

$20.5 Million Jury Verdict

A few years ago, a jury awarded Jeff Tamraz $20.5 million against several companies that make welding rods. The jury said manganese fumes released in the welding process caused his Parkinson's disease. This was the largest verdict ever in a welding rod case.

Now the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial.

Why Was the Verdict Reversed?

The court said the expert testimony given by Tamraz's doctor wasn't based on scientific knowledge. The doctor testified that Tamraz's illness was caused by manganese exposure. The judges decided that this testimony shouldn't have been included because it wasn't scientific knowledge, but merely a possibility. Expert testimony must be based on scientific proof and knowledge. It isn't speculative or hypothetical.

Is This the Only Case that Has Been Reversed?

Tamraz's case is one of about 10,000 cases filed against Lincoln Electric and other companies. However, most cases have been dropped and under 1000 remain.

In a similar case, a ship fitter named Robert Jowers also sued Lincoln. The verdict in his case has also been overturned, but in his favor. The court decided that the jury should have been given instructions as to what is comparative and joint negligence.

Jowers claimed Lincoln and other defendants didn't warn him about the hazards of welding rod fumes. A jury in Mississippi calculated $1.7 million in punitive damages and $1.2 million in compensatory damages. But the jury decided Jowers was 40 percent at fault. This reduced his compensatory damage award to $720,000.

Joint-Tortfeasor Liability

Jowers said his employer, Ingalls shipbuilding, now a part of Northrup Grumman, was also to blame for failing to warn him of the dangers of manganese fumes. In toxic torts and negligence cases defendants can seek to share blame with other parties, including the plaintiff. In Jower's case, the trial court didn't instruct the jury on this defense. Evidence showed the ship company Jowers worked for, Ingalls, shared responsibility for the injury.

In this case, the appeals court set aside the compensatory damage verdict and ordered a new trial. If the jury were given this instruction, they might have decided Ingalls had a duty to provide Jowers with a safe workplace and shared blame for the injury.

What Is a Safe Workplace?

A panel that oversaw these cases understood that welding rods can sometimes emit more fumes than safety regulations allow. Ingalls should have taught their employee welders about the chemicals found in these welding fumes, but didn't. Evidence of this problem might prove Ingalls didn't provide a safe work environment to its employees, and therefore shared the responsibility.

Welding rod litigation is continuing. Because the stakes are so high, these lawsuits have been defended vigorously. However, there are some winners and some losers and these cases are likely to continue in the future.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If I've been exposed to welding rod fumes, but don't show signs of illness yet, should I do anything to protect my legal rights and health? What could current cases mean for me in the future?
  • What are the time limits for filing a lawsuit based on toxic substance exposure? Are time limits different depending on who I sue? My employer or the manufacturer?
  • Are my rights to sue affected by workers compensation laws in my state?
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